When former Defense Secretary James Mattis took the helm of the Pentagon in 2017, he was “shocked” by the poor state of U.S. military readiness. Our armed forces faced a readiness crisis brought on by less money and more missions. Those bad old days may soon be back. The Biden budget blueprint, unveiled last week, will force the Pentagon into the same painful tradeoffs that hobbled readiness in the Obama era.
For fiscal 2022, the Biden administration has outlined only a small bump-up ($10 billion) from the current defense budget of $705 billion. That 1.4 percent increase – and more – will be eaten by inflation, estimated to run at 2.2 percent. Inevitable growth in personnel salaries, health care, and the costs of operating the force, as outlined by the Congressional Budget Office, will rob the Pentagon of even more buying power.
Defense spending increases during the Trump administration were – of necessity – dedicated to restoring readiness. But readiness is not a “one and done” expense. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted, “After fiscal 2020, once the program was brought back into a semblance of balance and readiness had stabilized, the department would have needed year-over-year budget increases of approximately 3 percent just to maintain the force structure levels the president inherited.”
Military leaders and leading lawmakers understand that math and have stressed the importance of growing the defense budget by between 3 percent and 5 percent above inflation for at least the last four budget cycles, from James Mattis in 2017 to the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, James Inhofe and the whole Republican leadership of the House Committee on Armed Services last month.
The 3 percent growth mark is understood as being the minimum required to maintain the current force structure and modernization plans already on the books. However, if there is one item of foreign policy which now enjoys bipartisan support, it is the recognition of the threat China poses to the rules-based international order.
Multiple demonstrations of Chinese intent – think Hong Kong, South China Sea, Uyghurs, or the Beijing delegation’s remarks at the recent Alaska meeting – have caused the scales to fall from the eyes of those who previously scoffed at the notion of China as a threat. So if the Biden administration wants to add force structure, which it should to meet these threats, or augment the modernization plans, which it also should do, it will need more resources than what it is signaling.
If the defense budget is not growing, the Pentagon will have few choices to free up resources to pay for inflationary growth. Historically, the fastest way to cut expenses is to reduce training and defer maintenance. While these actions free up resources in the current year, they only push those needs into the future, where they will accumulate, grow, and eventually become a much bigger problem. Just like a mold underneath your sink that you do not address.
In the long run, the Pentagon and the White House also need to drive down the cost of operating our forces and the always growing costs of health care. However, reducing the defense budget while increasing the demands on our military is a recipe for failure. The public intuitively understands the need to spend more on our national defense. A recent poll shows that 74 percent of Americans support increased military spending. Among Democrats, the support falls slightly to 67 percent, still a landslide-level of approval.
The public has a good sense of the challenges ahead of the United States military and the need to prepare for them. Let us hope Congress does as well. Lawmakers will have to step in and properly fund our military to avoid a penny-wise pound-foolish decision that we will pay dearly for in the future.
Frederico Bartels is the senior policy analyst for defense budgets based at the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.